Politics & Government

Brownback signs election bill, gives Kobach prosecutorial authority

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach testifies during a meeting of a legislative study committee on election issues. (Nov. 21, 2014)
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach testifies during a meeting of a legislative study committee on election issues. (Nov. 21, 2014) File photo

TOPEKA – Gov. Sam Brownback has officially given Secretary of State Kris Kobach the power to prosecute.

The governor signed SB 34 at a ceremony Monday, granting the secretary of state the authority to prosecute voter fraud.

Kobach, who crafted and pushed for the legislation, said his office has already begun preliminary work on investigations and said he had identified more than 100 possible cases of double voting. He said his office has started requesting voters’ signatures from counties as evidence.

“Once you have that matched, you have a slam dunk,” he said. “We’ll see what the ultimate number is. It’s hard to guess. I’m guessing that it’ll be an all-time high in double voting (in 2014), because Kansas was on the national news so much because of the tight governor’s race and Senate race. I think people were just tempted to cast (multiple) ballots.”

Kobach won’t be the only government official with the power to prosecute election crimes. The attorney general will also have that power, and county attorneys already have it. However, Kobach said his office probably will take the lead on most investigations.

During the legislative process, lawmakers could not identify another state that gives its secretary of state similar prosecutorial power, said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, one of the bill’s staunchest opponents.

Kobach said he was unsure whether any other states grant this power to their election officers. “You could certainly say accurately that it’s not common,” he said.

Carmichael said Kobach has been saying for four years that voter fraud is rampant in Kansas. “Now he is in a situation where he must put up or shut up, and he is under a powerful incentive now to commence prosecutions that no professional prosecutor would commence,” he said. “And that’s very scary.”

Brownback said Kobach has public support for his effort.

“Kris Kobach ran for office this last time on this bill. He won by double digits,” Brownback said. “So he took this issue to the people, and the people of Kansas looked at it and they want to make sure you don’t have voter fraud.”

Kobach has said that voter fraud is common. But from 1997 to 2010, there were only two confirmed cases in Sedgwick County and 11 in the state.

“I’ve given numbers,” Kobach said. “Some people on the other side of this issue think that more than 200 cases of fraud over a 13-year period is not significant. I think two cases over that period is significant, because any fraud is unacceptable in our election system.”

Kobach’s successful push for prosecutorial powers comes as presidential candidates from both parties are fiercely debating the issue of voting rights, with Democrats such as Hillary Clinton accusing Republicans of putting up hurdles to prevent voting.

Republican candidates contend voting policies are needed to maintain the integrity of elections.

Danilo Balladares, executive director of Wichita-based Sunflower Community Action, said the threat of prosecution could be used to keep minority voters from the polls.

“People who are more commonly kept away from the polls by intimidation tactics like these are already on the fringes … African-American communities and Latino communities. Those are the communities that are mostly targeted,” Balladares said. “It’s hard enough as it is. Kris Kobach should be focused on increasing voter turnout.”

During last year’s elections, 20,000 potential voters were classified as “suspended.” They tried to register but did not provide proof of citizenship, as required under another law crafted by Kobach.

Kelly Arnold, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party and Sedgwick County clerk, said the changes to election law in recent years are absolutely not meant to keep people from the polls.

“We want fair elections. We want the integrity of the ballot box,” Arnold said.

He said that other states may follow Kansas’ example, as they did with proof of citizenship and voter ID. “They look to Kansas because we passed some well-written laws on this issue to protect the ballot,” he said.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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